It hasn’t actually been long in the making, but the BBC’s three-part period adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel has apparently been long on the shelf (it aired on overseas BBC affiliates a while back) – and was slipped out in a pre-Christmas slot presumably designed to get it out of the way. It’s easy to see why BBC1 were disappointed with the results, though it does have a few features of interest. The novel isn’t an easy adapt, with its passive observer central character and an ending where the world is saved not through heroic agency but because the Martians are just as doomed as we are – but a lot of it is written like a screenplay (Wells was an ambitious early adopter of the cinema) with vivid scenes that cry out to be lifted from the page to the screen and little character interludes (the encounters with the Artilleryman and the Curate) that are almost as disturbing as the terrifying business with the Martians.
Scenarist Peter Harness and director Craig Viveiros have one major card to play – unlike Orson Welles, George Pal and Steven Spielberg, this version is set ‘in the early years of the 20th century’ in the book’s original location so finally the Martian meteors can crash-land in the environs of Woking. This isn’t completely unprecedented – there’s a very cheap American adaptation that uses the original period, as does the concert film of the Jeff Wayne album (Harness seems to feel more indebted to Wayne than Wells and uses key pull-quotes familiar from the LP) and that odd mock-doc The Great Martian War – but it does allow us finally to see folk in Norfolk jackets pedalling away from invaders on bicycles, politicians in top hats being smug about English military might, and Edwardian London (played by Liverpool) infested with the Black Smoke and the Red Weed.
Harness draws on Wells’ own life for his story, making journalist George Thynne (Rafe Spall) – everyone seems to pronounce it ‘Thing’, which gets laughs – and his partner Amy (Eleanor Tomlinson) analogues of Bertie and his second wife Amy Catherine Robbins, though this George is posher, less squeaky (Spall’s usual accent is closer to the real HG than the tones he adopts here), more angst-racked, and better connected – brother Fred (Rupert Graves) is undersecretary to the Minister of War – than the Wells of the 1890s. The opening narration (‘vast, cool and unsympathetic’ etc) is spoken by Amy, and she becomes the central character – especially thanks to a peculiar bit of structuring whereby the initial Martian invasion (and its collapse) is intercut with flash-forwards to a red-tinged miserable aftermath as if this were a turn of the century version of Threads as Amy struggles along with her son (Woody Norman), who may be the last child born to a barren planet, and can’t remember how the original story panned out until we need to see it on screen.
The tripods are decently done, though the floating black ball of stickiness that becomes the heat ray is so elaborate that it’s more puzzling than threatening – and the three-legged Martian vampires which show up in the third episode just feel like knock-offs of so many subsequent insectile aliens rather than an original of the hostile invader species. A few decisions seem simply perverse – we have an action scene just to show the Artilleryman (Harry Melling) firing an artillery piece to little effect, but he gets combusted before he can have the big speech Wells gives him … and the curate is reconfigured as a priest (Jonathan Aris) who argues with Amy about Darwinism while not getting his head round the miracle that crops only grow where corpses are planted has more to do with decay than sacred ground.
The budget isn’t there for large-scale devastation scenes, and Wells’ very specific mapping of massacres on Home Counties and London locations is lost in a muddle of geography – this Woking is a generic small town (its main square reminded me a bit of the Everytown version of Piccadilly Circus in Things to Come) and the city just a few buildings with the odd landmark on the skyline. Ogilvy (Robert Carlyle) is kept alive to figure in the last episode, puzzling out the Martians’ vulnerability – which is more complicated than a susceptibility to colds – by peering through microscopes and dripping typhus on red weed. Wells is great about little poignant, horrific details – his Englishmen are foolhardy and pathetic but also cheerful, hopeful, innocent and their deaths are telling … but here we get a lot of nasty folk who deserve to be immolated or tokens – an old lady, an ethnic little girl, an offscreen crying baby – who get sacrificed for cheap points.